“I think there’s something wrong with an animal I saw on the pathway here,” a guest said to me on the Granite Camp deck a few mornings ago. “It’s one of those male nyala and he’s walking around in such a strange pose. He looks like he’s pulled a muscle”. I laughed, immediately understanding what this concerned guest was referring to. Despite appearances, the nyala bull he had seen was in the middle of an intense battle with a rival.
Nyala bulls have a rather strange way of fighting though. It looks more like a slow motion waltz than it does a fight.
They circle each other, with their faces trained on the ground but keep a beady eye on their opponent by surrepticiously using their peripheral vision. They circle each other broad side in a lateral display, attempting to make themselves appear as big as possible. They fluff up their tails and the dorsal manes on their back, whilst arching their heads forward with horns posied. It is in this rather contorted posture that they then deliberately circle one another, slowly high stepping their bright yellow legs as they go.
Have a look at the footage below to get a sense of what I’m referring to.
This is often done in the presence of females and in the hope that these potential mating partners will be watching to see who comes out tops. Typically the male who loses will drop his mane and wander off to groom or feed in a rather sheepish manner, appearing to have forgotten about the fight altogether. The winner will keep his hair puffed up for a while longer, making sure everyone is sure of who’s boss. It’s this male that will then be awarded the mating rights. The question is why they do this long and involved waltz instead of fighting and just being done with it?
The reason is that should these bulls lock horns, the fight can turn savage and even result in fatalaties. Why do this when a peaceful solution, that expends less energy, is available?
In fact prior to the lateral display described above, these bulls may be seen digging at soil or thrashing in bushes with their horns. This bush-thrashing serves as a display to on-lookers of the male’s strength. Males may also pack mud onto or carry foliage around on their horns as this self-adornment draws attention to and accentuates their horns. These are peaceful intimidation techniques done to deter the opponent before entering into the long and involved lateral display.
If you think about it, most species use tactics such as this in varying degrees. Lions and leopards roar and scent mark, elephant bulls gouge their tusks into the ground and even birds like Egyptian geese honk loudly and stand with wings outspread to make themselves appear as big as possible before a fight actually occurs. When your survival is reliant on you being able hunt for yourself or move about uninjured then it’s best to do everything in your power not to fight before you absolutely have to.
As is so often the case with Nature, we can never really know for sure though. Maybe it just is that nyala bulls are lovers not haters and they dance instead of fight because they prefer to make peace rather than war…
Have you ever seen this behaviour before and if so, what was your take on it?